Formula One returns to Europe this weekend for the Spanish Grand Prix. Although Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are occupying their customary places at the top of the points tables, the season nonetheless looks fairly open so far.
Kimi Raikonen is doing his usual “Mr Consistency” thing in his Lotus and is very much in the hunt for the championship. His car looks after its tyres very well and that plays to the strongest part of his game.
Nor should Fernando Alonso be discounted. Uncharacteristically he and Ferrari have allowed some points to slip through their fingers due to errors and car problems in Malaysia and Bahrain, but there’s clearly more potential in the car than last year and they already have a win under their belts.
On top of that, Mercedes are picking up podiums with a car which is probably the quickest over a single lap at the moment. And it is surely only a matter of time before McLaren get their problems with the MP4-28 sorted out – though whether they can do so before their rivals get too far ahead in the championship is another matter.
In recent seasons it has been hard to find a good reason to back anyone other than Vettel in qualifying. That was particularly true in 2011, when he took pole position in 15 out of 19 races. But qualifying is not as one-sided as it used to be. The fragility of the current tyres gives teams an incentive to ensure they hold up during the race rather than produce peak performance for a single lap.
As teams’ priorities change, the balance of power inevitably shifts. In the last three races Mercedes, rather than Red Bull, have set the quickest time over a single lap. The odds have been a little slow to reflect this change. Vettel is the clear favourite for pole position on 2.25, but the Mercedes pair offer more rewarding odds of 6.00 for Lewis Hamilton and 8.00 for Nico Rosberg.
If you need a further reason to look beyond Vettel in qualifying, consider this: he’s never had pole position at the Circuit de Catalunya before. Team mate Mark Webber has done so twice, and is available 8.00 to do it again.
Alonso has sent his devoted home fans into raptures at the start of the last two Spanish Grands Prix by taking the lead despite not having the advantage of pole position. He has made some excellent starts in the Ferrari and as the run to the first corner is so long there’s a good chance he could do it again. That’s assuming he qualifies well enough but with an average starting position of 3.5 this year – better than anyone bar Vettel – that shouldn’t be a problem.
Alonso therefore has to be considered a strong contender for victory. But at 3.00 his odds are as short as Vettel’s. Raikkonen offers odds of 5.00 to win but the decision of F1 tyre supplier Pirelli to switch the hard tyre to a more durable tyre will probably work against them. But do take a serious look at Raikkonen’s odds for setting the race’s fastest lap. A price of 10.00 for a driver who’s already set 38 fastest laps during his career is a decent deal.
Finally, the Bahrain Grand Prix saw Sergio Perez come out on top in an entertaining battle between the two McLaren drivers. He’s on odds of 3.00 to put one over Jenson Button again this weekend.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.